Last week, News International's Times and Sunday Times announced their plans to charge for access to the papers' new websites (see paidContent's exclusive preview) which will be launched in May this year. The move was not surprising: News Corp owner Rupert Murdoch expressed a keen desire to charge for online content on several occasions last year, and enthusiasm for paid online content seems to be growing around the industry.
"It's got to be the case that charging for content is going to make more economic sense than just giving it away," Times editor James Harding told readers last week. As revenue from advertising falls, it is a view that is shared by many, but past experience has suggested that it might not necessarily be the case. After all, income from paying print readers has always helped newspapers, but it was always the advertising revenue that brought in big profits.
The Guardian's director of digital content Emily Bell questions the "actual sagacity" of the move in an article entitled "The Times's paywall move does not being to tackle the wider challenge," and Jeff Jarvis, writing in the same paper, said that "to try to transpose old business models to this new business reality is simply insane." The Guardian has proved a vocal opponent of paid online content for some time, with editor Alan Rusbridger strongly upholding the benefits of free online content, stressing how much a paywall reduces the public's access and the paper's influence.
Such a paywall "does not begin to tackle the far greater challenge of telling effective stories and creating activities and audiences in a constantly changing digital landscape," Bell argues. She maintains that creating engagement should be newspapers' key focus and finds it "hard to understand how deliberately downsizing your audience is ever going to help with the broader problem."
Harding was clear that the paper expects to lose some readers when the paywall is in place. "Clearly, we are going to lose a lot of passing traffic," he told readers during a live Q&A on the paper's website on Friday. These "window shoppers," those who are not regular readers, will be lost, but Harding said he believes that "we will grow the number of regular readers... And I think we will attract a new kind of reader to the Times."
The Times' paywall is unlike several others that have already been implemented, in that it cuts the "vast bulk" of content off from non-paying readers. The New York Times plans to start charging for content in early 2011; however, its metered strategy seems intended to make its most loyal readers pay but to keep sporadic visitors also, and therefore maintain advertising income. The London-based papers seem prepared to give up on this advertising potential, but arguably paying readers can offer more revenue from advertising as they have to provide information about themselves and open themselves up to targeted ads.
It was clear during the Q&A session that the Times is focusing on a wider digital strategy beyond the website. He wants people to look to the Times on their phones, "and on a host of new devices to come." As yet, neither the Times or Sunday Times has launched a mobile application.
Which business model will prevail? Will paid online content soon become the norm?